The Speakers Secret
Times, March 18, 2001
PO Box 496, London E1 9XN, United Kingdom
Fax: +44( 0 )171-782 5988
George Thomas was one of Britains best loved and most influential public
figures as Speaker of the House of Commons. Yet he lived in constant fear of
being unmasked. His old friend Leo Abse, who as a Labour MP reformed the law
to legalise homosexual activity, reveals the terror that dogged him even into
One morning at six oclock the phone rang. My wife, who woke first,
picked it up. After a few minutes, looking worried, she handed it to me.
"George here," came a familiar voice. It was my friend George
Thomas, secret homosexual and until barely a year beforehand superb
Speaker of the House of Commons.
His voice sounded strangulated, and George was sobbing. "Im in
terrible, terrible trouble. Come quickly."
I immediately thought he was phoning me from a police station. My heart
sank. I feared that, after all the years in which he had given so much to the
nation, he was about to be crushed by scandal.
I knew I had to dash to him. For I was well aware that, although he had the
wit and aplomb to keep himself cool while damping down the passions stirred in
turbulent Commons debates, he would dangerously overreact and panic if there
was the slightest sign of a crack in the thin ice upon which he skated all his
At the time, George was 75 and one of the best known men in Britain. As
Speaker when parliamentary broadcasting was introduced, his voice had been
heard daily on the radio calling the house and the country to order.
He had been Speaker for seven years, the culmination of a distinguished
political career an MP since 1945, a minister at the Home Office in the
1960s and subsequently secretary of state for Wales. He was also a prominent
lay preacher. He had read the lesson at the wedding of the Prince and Princess
of Wales, and enjoyed a warm relationship with the Queen Mother.
During his political life, forever emphasising the brotherhood of man,
George could benignly sublimate his inclinations. Many, as a consequence, were
uplifted by his solicitudes.
But those inclinations could not always be contained under the fraternal
rubric. Sometimes, overwhelmed, what he regarded as lapses did occur. Then he
suffered his agony.
George was no saint; nor did he claim to be one. But a halo strangely
crowned him and enchanted everyone. His very presence illuminated every
gathering into which he entered dining at Sandringham, presiding over
Methodist conferences, sitting in the tearoom of the Commons or speaking in
the shabby halls where impecunious old-age pensioners assembled. To all alike
he brought laughter and hope. His charisma lay in his immediacy. His enemies,
of whom there were many, were infuriated that they could fall under his spell.
He never ceased to mock his halo. In the Commons, where so often he
precipitated a blunder, the House would gratefully forgive him as, to its
delight, he laughed at himself. Members would respond not with censure but
with non-malicious glee.
Nowhere did he better illustrate his self-deprecation than in the title he
assumed after retirement Viscount Tonypandy.
A casual observer might think this was homage to his birthplace in Wales.
But Welsh initiates like me understood his implicit scoffing at the very
viscountcy he was assuming. For ramshackle, down-at-heel Tonypandy was always,
in snobbish Cardiff, stigmatised as a despairing hole where troglodytes dwelt.
It attracted in Wales the same undeserved opprobrium as Wigan did in England.
The incongruous title was a barbed raillery which George directed against
himself a joke at his own expense. It was his way of coping with his
tragic sense of his own unworthiness.
Perhaps I alone knew of his personal travail. I was privileged to give him
help when he was endangered as a result of barbarous laws and primitive
With no politician in my lifetime did I enjoy a longer friendship. I
believe this occurred because of my insistence that far from corroborating
his sense of his own unworthiness I only acknowledged his dilemma, never
his guilt. I lightened his load a little.
Our first encounter was in 1938 when, aged 21, I fought a council seat in
the ward where George Thomas was a teacher. As the years rolled on and he
became one of Cardiffs MPs, I was constantly campaigning with him. When I
got married it was George who acted as witness in the synagogue, and when I
was sworn in as an MP he was my sponsor.
Over the years, given his exposed position, it was inevitable that he would
fall victim to blackmail. On one occasion, after a distraught recounting to me
of the pressure upon him, I insisted I would meet and deal with the young
criminal in his constituency into whose hands he had fallen.
My reputation in Cardiffs criminal underworld stood me in good stead in
dealing with the wretch. As a lawyer, I had often acted in the courts on
behalf of the local prosecution department, and, even more frequently, I had
defended the citys gangsters. As one-time chairman of the watch committee,
I had the duty of supervising the local police.
The blackmailing cur, therefore, had no doubt that, unless he desisted, I
would carry out my threat to ensure he was put behind bars for 10 years;
shortly after our encounter he found it was politic to quit the city.
George had always been on the edge of catastrophe. Before my Sexual
Offences Act of 1967, which ended the criminality of private homosexual
conduct, I had been involved for almost a decade in agitation to reform the
law. That had brought me into contact with many homosexuals and lobbies
seeking to end the grievous discrimination; and they certainly did not lack a
talent to operate a rumour mill.
There were whispers abroad; and I learnt that George was visiting a grubby
cinema in Westminster where, under cover of the darkness, groping prevailed
unchecked. I warned him against his lack of discretion. Alarmed that I had
been able to know about his haunt, he thereafter kept well away from that
But there had been times when my advice had gone unheeded. While still a
backbench MP, he asked me for a loan. George never had any money. As MPs we
received in those days a pittance, far removed from the undeserved and swollen
salaries and puffed-up expenses now bestowed upon themselves by our
legislators; but George was always without a penny because what he had, he
gave away. He responded to any hard-luck stories and, of course, he was often
The specificity and size of the loan, £800, however, aroused my
suspicions. Pressed, he poured out at least part of the story. I urged him to
let me deal with this extortioner. But to no avail. That sum the ticket
and resettlement money which was to take the man to Australia would,
George insisted, mark the end of the affair. I had profound misgivings but I
could see George was near breaking point. I gave him the money.
I do not know what happened to his tormentor subsequently; but, years later
and unprompted by me, George handed me an envelope in the Commons lobby,
clasped my hand tightly, said "thank you" and moved away clearly
not wishing to reopen what was to him so painful a wound.
Now receiving a ministerial salary, he thought he was repaying the loan in
full. In fact when I opened the envelope I found he had short-changed me. With
his insouciance about money for he was generous to a fault and always
practised the charity he preached he could just as well have overpaid me
by a few hundred pounds. I preferred to enjoy the incident as my private joke
and never told him of his error, for I sensed the anguish that still, for him,
surrounded the affair.
In his public life he could, unerringly and courageously, ward off the
malicious sophistries designed to destroy him; when he was secretary of state
for Wales, not all the calumnies of the Welsh nationalists and their media
fellow-travellers could subvert his political initiatives and his high
reputation. Yet the slightest tremor of scandal, however faintly reverberating
into his private domain, reduced him to jelly.
One such occasion was in 1976 when, summoned to his sitting-room in the
Speakers house, I found him grey-faced and trembling. Investigative
journalists, some from the BBC, were pursuing inquiries into the adventures of
the then Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe.
They had evidently reached the conclusion that, some 16 years earlier,
under a Conservative government, political intervention had saved Thorpe from
being prosecuted for a homosexual offence against a minor.
They also believed that, when Thorpe became embroiled in another scandal in
1964, he feared that the records in the Home Office of his earlier
misbehaviour would wreck his efforts to free himself of his new dilemma.
The journalists had discovered that Thorpe using his friend, the
fraudulent Liberal MP Peter Bessell, as an intermediary had turned to
George, who was then a parliamentary under-secretary at the Home Office, for
help. Yielding to Bessells importuning, George had set up a private meeting
between Bessell and the home secretary.
The journalists indicated that they wished to have a probing interview with
George. When I arrived on the scene he felt trapped. He feared the
interpretation that might be placed upon a denial of their request, yet feared
to grant it.
He was frightened that his motivation in assisting Bessell was under
scrutiny and that the journalists, if denied the interview, would be provoked
into becoming more interested in his own sexual proclivities than in
It was clear to me that if he submitted to an interrogation by the
journalists he was in danger of betraying himself. He could, with unmatched
deftness, control the most noisy of Commons debates. But, witnessing his
anxiety state, I doubted if, under pressure, he would successfully control the
nascent guilt-ridden self-castigations that were just beneath the surface and
forever waiting to be released.
I had noted at funerals and marriages his penchant for using texts from the
epistle to the Corinthians (as he would again in the marriage of the Prince
and Princess of Wales in 1981). I wanted not the slightest betraying hint of
cleansing repentance to emerge in an encounter with his press tormentors.
I told him he must pull rank. He should indicate through his brigadier
secretary the impropriety of the Speaker granting a private interview to
discuss any matters which might have taken place during his time as a
In a display of mock helpfulness, he should also suggest their best plan
would be to get in touch with the department concerned in this case the
Home Office as it would undoubtedly possess the records of this and other
matters of public interest that would be sufficient to satisfy any legitimate
I knew well from all my experience in dealing over the years with the Home
Office that there is no government department that revels more in bureaucratic
negativism. Even the most indefatigable of journalists would be directed on to
a fruitless and a frustrating task.
He took my advice, and within a week or two he regained his equanimity and
was in splendid form presiding over the Commons.
Thereafter, George presumably exercised more discretion. He never again
turned to me for assistance to overcome any misadventures until I received
that poignant early-morning call in 1984, the year after his retirement.
It turned out that morning that he was not at a police station, as I
feared, but in a hospital. Puzzled and concerned, I rushed to him.
There was, I knew, a link between his past flights into illness and
dangerous threats of exposure. Once, when he was a backbencher, it drove him
into hospital with a bout of shingles. Sometimes, when he had been overwhelmed
with praise, his guilt at the encomiums being bestowed upon such a
"sinner" momentarily crushed him.
(Five years after this incident, he collapsed at a party given for him at
Guildhall to celebrate his 80th birthday. That spasm of shame also passed and
a few days later he was receiving the Prince and Princess of Wales.)
I wondered, as I approached the hospital that dawn, what ghost had visited
the haunted man this time. Before I even reached the hospital, he phoned my
wife three times. She kept on reassuring him that I was on my way.
The ward sister was waiting tensely at the reception desk when I arrived.
She praised heaven that I had come; she could do nothing with Viscount
I reached Georges bed and found him convulsively sobbing. He grabbed my
hand and said he was ruined. Soon the whole world would know that he was in
hospital suffering from . . . venereal disease.
Relieved that this was the extent of the problem, I chastened him to get a
grip on himself. He had been extricated from worse scrapes.
"Waterworks" was the answer, I explained. He should allow one of
his journalist friends to know he had been rushed to hospital with prostate
difficulties after he had found he could not urinate.
That, I knew, would stifle further inquiries. Today prostate troubles are
no longer spoken of in whispers; but even 15 years ago the prostate was one of
I reminded George of a previous Speaker who was temporarily away from the
house and how discreetly we were informed that his waterworks were in trouble.
Nobody, I assured him, would follow up his condition if he immediately dropped
the hint of a prostate problem.
It worked. George entered enthusiastically into the tale I had created for
him. He even sent me, from the hospital, a beflowered "thank you"
card obviously designed to be shown to my wife.
It read: "Dear Leo, I shall be for ever grateful. Strangely enough
there had been no need for me to worry it was all in my brain! I am due
for the prostate gland operation next Wednesday. Love to you all.
My wife laughed indulgently at his naivety that she would be deceived; but
it helped George to think so and very soon he was out of hospital taking,
I hoped, the precautions that would avoid his ever again being placed in such
Am I now, belatedly, betraying my friend in telling of the shadows in
which, away from the pomp and glory of the Palace of Westminster, and, indeed,
of Buckingham Palace, he was humiliatingly forced to walk? I do not think he
would have thought so.
Once, after I had saved him from the consequences of some escapade, he
could not contain his anger against the homophobic hostilities which had so
Using the only expletives that were part of his vocabulary, with tears in
his eyes, he railed: "Bust them, Leo. I do not care a damn what is said
after Im dead but I couldnt stand them taunting me in my lifetime."
I believe it is proper that Georges homosexuality should be recorded.
The gifts he gave to the nation fundamentally arose because of, not despite,
his sexual orientation.
Too often it is suggested that the homosexual in politics tends to be
singularly destructive as has been implied with Peter Mandelson. But there
are some homosexuals who bring to a legislature a feminine sensibility and
empathy which those outlawing such feelings, out of fear that they could
undermine their own fragile heterosexuality, conspicuously lack.
These days fortunately, belatedly it is possible for cabinet
ministers to come out of the closet, to do their work, without forever
dissimulating as was Georges lot. The charisma he possessed which was
real, unlike the artificial charisma of Tony Blair had its source in the
extraordinary feminine identification that possessed the man.
That identification was with the one woman in his life his Mama. The
opening words of his autobiography say: "Looking back now I can see how
providence has guided my life on a path set by my mother who was the single
most important influence in my life."
"Providence" also ordained that he should be cursed in his first
five years of life with a violent, alcoholic and bigamist father who, in
drunken bouts, regularly smashed the furniture and beat up his wife and
children. Every Saturday night after the pubs closed, the father returned to
make the home a hell, as mother and the young children vainly tried to contain
the violence unleashed against them.
Relief only came when, never to return, the father left to join the army.
By that time the mother and her favourite child, bound together in an
unshakeable defensive alliance, were as one. And so it remained throughout
Georges adult life.
At every meeting, on every platform, at every social gathering, his mother
was beside him; she featured in all his election addresses and all his
His devotion, so publicly and ceaselessly displayed, would doubtless in
other cultures have been regarded as cloying and mawkish. But in Wales this
redoubtable, bright woman was adopted as a symbol of everyones idealised
Mam: caring, concerned and forgiving. For the overwhelming majority of the
Welsh electorate, Georges very presence brought the recall of a childhood
blessed with Mama and Dada.
In vain did Welsh nationalists mock him as "Mothers Pride";
and it did them little good to scorn his warm relationship with the Queen
Mother by dubbing her "Mam with a tiara".
The resonances that George activated, and which brought him so much
affection and admiration throughout Wales, arose because his apotheosis of the
Mam was less extravagantly the emotional mode of so many of his fellow
He was adored by so many older voters because he was the good son returning
their love. Among his male contemporaries his feminine tenderness evoked
indulgence. And many women, with whom he shared so many lineaments,
undisturbed by any threatening sexuality, embraced him as a comforter, half
older sister, half brother.
Among politicians, a narcissistic breed, many play the part of being their
own heroes. With George, it was not role-playing; he was his own hero. In
sublimated form, unconsciously, he used the oedipal "rescue" fantasy
of saving the mother from the unwanted attention of a tyrant husband; and he
acted out the fantasy that yielded the legend of his namesake, Saint George.
Because, in early family life, he had suffered a real and cruel
corroboration of this unconscious fantasy of every little boy, the zeal and
elan he brought to his political campaigning had a special quality.
Rationality was not in his armoury; he relied on his elemental feminine
He understood the vanities of all of us, including himself. Sometimes he
abused his possession of exquisitely sensitive antennae to manipulate or
disadvantage his opponents but, far more often, his empathy enabled him to
bring balm to the wounded among us.
When George died of throat cancer four years ago, Welsh nationalists and
their fellow-travellers danced on his grave even as Britain mourned his
passing. The nationalist apologists choked with rage that the obituarists,
reflecting public opinion, were recording tributes of so many who felt
indebtedness to George.
They lost their usual articulacy and relapsed into gutter abuse. The
obituary in the main Anglo-Welsh literary journal declared him to be
"swinish", "cynical", a "creep", "possessed
of peasant cunning", "glib", "tactless",
"pathologically vicious" and "brutal". The thesaurus was
dredged to find pejoratives to be heaped upon his tombstone. They mocked too
his "overheated relationship with his Mam".
I take pride that I had been able to shield him a little, so that he was
unbesmirched when his time came. Led by the Prince of Wales, representing the
Queen, Westminster Abbey was packed with 1,400 mourners not only the great
and the good but hundreds of representatives of the charities, chapels and
churches to whom he had acted as an inspiration.
© Leo Abse 2001
Extracted from Tony Blair, the Man Behind the Smile, by Leo Abse, to be
published by Robson Books on March 29 at £9.99. Copies can be ordered for
£8.99 from The Sunday Times Books Direct on 0870 165 8585.